Progress Stemming from Research
Stem cells have long courted controversy, but a study from 2012 has shown, once again, how much potential they have for medical treatments. A report by American researchers demonstrated improvements in the eyesight of two women suffering from macular degeneration, after stem cells were introduced to their eyes.
Of the two patients, the first has ‘dry’ macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in developed nations. The second suffers from Stargardt’s Disease, which is the main cause of macular degeneration in young people. Study co-leader Steven D. Schwartz, MD, from the Jules Stein Institute in Los Angeles, reported that both patients reported vision improvements after being injected with the cells.
”They do have some improvement in peripheral vision around the central blind spot, which is not coming back,” he said. This comment is important, as it emphasises the limitations of the treatment; it is designed to improve the eyesight of those with macular degeneration, not make their eyesight perfect again or cure people of blindness.
CAN YOU SEE IT?
Though the improvements made by the patients may seem small to those with normal eyesight, for those who suffer from sight deficiencies, the possibility of gaining ability to see is encouraging.
”Before treatment, one patient could only see hand motion. She could not read any letters [on an eye chart],” Robert Lanza, MD, co-study leader, told writers at webMD. ”By one month she could read five letters. But that does not capture the difference in her life. She could see more colour. She had better contrast in the operated eye and no improvement in untreated eye. She mentioned she could start using her computer and even start reading her watch.”
The study is still in its infancy, with commonplace stem cell treatments not expected for some years to come. Speaking to ABC radio, Martin Pera, professor of Stem Cell Sciences at the University of Melbourne, explained that the research is still in very early days, but it does provide hope for the future.
”The important conclusion is, from this very early study, which is really designed to look at safety rather than efficacy, […] that the treatment, at least in these two patients, appeared to be well tolerated and indeed there was some improvement in vision, though we can’t really say for certain that that is due to the graft as yet.”
As with any study with a small sample size, there is a possibility of a placebo effect. With additional independent studies set to be undertaken around the world, the efficacy of the procedure will be properly tested. For those suffering from macular degeneration, that is hope enough.